On May 21, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will host the 2014 induction ceremony for the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Fifteen inventors will be recognized at the event in Alexandria, VA, representing innovation in areas from secret communication systems to water disinfecting technology. With this in mind we wanted to profile some of these revolutionary inventors while taking an in-depth look into various areas of American innovation.
Among this year’s inductees is William Bowerman, the creator of the modern athletic shoe. Bowerman’s portfolio of patents include some of the foundational innovations that made Nike, the company that he helped to establish, such a force in the sporting equipment industry. Early athletic shoe designs utilized metal spikes for traction and aimed to provide support, but Bowerman’s design provided a shoe with superior traction and support that was both lighter in weight and more comfortable to the wearer.
In this edition of our Evolution of Technology series, we take a long view at the development of casual sneakers for use in athletic and recreational activities. From the first attempts at creating shoes with better stability while running, through contemporary inventions involving digital analysis utilizing shoe sensors, athletic shoes have greatly increased in technological complexity over the past 100 years. So without further ado, as Bowerman is about to be enshrined in the Invnetors Hall of Fame, we take this opportunity to learn more about the history of athletic shoes.
Early Athletic Shoe Patents
Up through the middle of the 19th Century, the common footwear for everyday use was shoes. Although some of the affluent and wealthy might have been able to afford shoes for different occasions, it wasn’t as if many people had different shoes for casual and formal situations. The prospects for athletic footwear began to change with the birth of modern athletics itself, beginning around the turn of the 20th Century, when the marathon became a feature of the modern Olympic Games.
Plimsolls were an early style of casual shoe designed for both comfort and for better durability against water, dirt and more. From these early rubber soled designs were developed early running shoes, essentially casual shoes from the time that included metal spikes for traction. By the first few decades of the 1900s, vulcanization processes to meld cloth to rubber became widespread. The incredibly quiet footwear produced by this process eventually came to be known as “sneakers.”
The earliest patent we found relating directly to a style of shoe meant for recreational purposes was U.S. Patent No. 1392704, which is titled Athletic Shoe. This patent was issued by the USPTO to Spalding & Bros. of New York, NY, one of the earliest developers of basketball shoes in October 1921. It protected the construction of a lighter weight athletic shoe using long spikes. The weight of the shoe is reduced through a lighter insole which is able to protect the feet from spike pressure while stepping.
Another early athletic shoe patent we noticed comes from one of the most renowned names in sporting equipment. John Tate Riddell of Evanston, IL, was issued a patent by the USPTO in August 1925 to protect the manufacture of a protective athletic shoe. U.S. Patent No. 1549382, titled Athletic Shoe with Ankle Brace, protected the manufacture of a shoe designed with an ankle brace for athletic support. John T. Riddell, who also invented the removable cleat, was the founder of Riddell, the company that still constructs helmets and other equipment for the National Football League.
Lighter weight sneakers and a higher degree of stability were both goals for those looking to improve on early designs of athletic shoes. In June 1964, the USPTO issued U.S. Patent No. 3138880, entitled Athletic Shoe, to Bennett Inc. of Cambridge, MA, to protect an athletic shoe that distributes stress evenly around the upper part of the shoe, providing additional support to the wearer’s foot. Stress is distributed around the shoe by proper tightening of the lace straps meant to tie the shoe to the wearer’s foot.
We were also intrigued by one other patent for athletic footwear seeking to overcome issues with previous designs that could cause unnecessary stress or even injury in athletes. U.S. Patent No. 3668792, which is titled Breakaway Athletic Safety Shoe, protects a style of athletic shoe with a lower breakaway sole that separates from the shoe in response to a transverse force. William A. York of Elmhurst, NY, patented this shoe design in June 1972 to reduce instances of injury among athletes when a transverse force created by planting a foot firmly is transferred by the traction elements of a shoe to a wearer’s legs, knees and ankles.
William Bowerman, Nike and the Modern Athletic Shoe
For more than two decades, William Bowerman served as the head track coach at the University of Oregon. During that time, he was renowned for being an athletic innovator; he was among the first coaches to record his athletes on film so they could study their performance, as well as various improvements for lighter weight equipment and uniforms.
Bowerman’s goals of designing a lighter, and therefore quicker, athletic shoe would lead to a revolution in the entire industry. In the 1950s, he began to develop what would become known as the Waffle Trainer, a shoe with an outer sole constructed of latex and rubber, with raised nubs for traction. Bowerman used his wife’s waffle iron to set the soles of early prototypes, which is how the design got its name.
Bowerman tried to interest both domestic and foreign shoe manufacturers in his footwear designs, but he couldn’t attract any investment through the 1950s. During a trip to New Zealand in 1962, Bowerman encountered an unusual activity that we take for granted as fairly commonplace today: jogging. In January 1964, Bowerman and a former student-athlete at University of Oregon, Phil Knight, invested $1,000 into their joint venture, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS Inc.), buying 300 pairs of running shoes from Tiger, a Japanese running shoe company, based on Bowerman’s designs.
By the 1970s, Bowerman and Knight were looking to manufacture their own shoes for sale, and the Nike line of athletic footwear debuted in 1972. In August of that year, Bowerman filed the patent application for what would eventually be issued as U.S. Patent No. 3793750, titled Athletic Shoe for Artificial Turf, which is the patent for which he is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. This patent protects a shoe with a porous multi-layered upper shoe portion attached to a rubber sole with a plurality of studs projecting downward. The porous area provides good ventilation for keeping the feet dry and for better comfort in hot conditions. This patent was assigned to Bowerman and Knight’s company, BRS Inc. of Tigard, OR, in February 1972. BRS Inc. was the predecessor to what would eventually be known as Nike, which dominated global athletic shoe sales during the 1980s and 1990s.
As his inductee profile with the National Inventors Hall of Fame points out, Bowerman earned eight patents in the field of athletic innovation during the course of his life. U.S. Patent 4107858, titled Athletic Shoe Having Laterally Elongated Metatarsal Cleat, protected a self-cleaning style of athletic cleated shoe where the metatarsal cleat directs water, dirt, grass and other material to reduce issues of hydroplaning when a player wearing cleats suddenly stops on a wet surface. This design keeps mud from clogging the cleats, which can increase the chance that a player falls because of slippery ground. U.S. Patent No. 4255877, entitled Athletic Shoe Having External Heel Counter, protects another Bowerman innovation of an external heel counter made from resilient material which wraps around both sides of the shoe’s upper heel. This design increases ankle support within athletic shoes without resulting in the blisters caused by interior heel counters.
Innovation in athletic shoe development is still going on among both equipment manufacturers and solo inventors looking to capitalize on their novel designs. Although structure, support and comfort are still sought after by shoe developers, some inventions meant to track athletic performance have only become possible since the start of the digital age.
Shoes that are better capable of absorbing the shock of striking the ground at high force are described in U.S. Patent No. 8495825, which is titled Forefoot Catapult for Athletic Shoes. Patented by Athletic Propulsion Labs LLC in July 2013, this athletic shoe technology involves a catapult device installed near the ball of a wearer’s foot which returns energy during the gait cycle, reducing shocks on the foot. U.S. Patent No. 8429836, entitled Collapsible Athletic Shoe, protects a type of athletic shoe which can be collapsed for easier packing in a briefcase or luggage for traveling purposes. The patent was issued to solo inventor Veronica Tomor of Hollywood, FL, in April 2013.
Some other intriguing recently issued patents protect computing devices designed to provide various data for analysis on a runner’s stride or gait, among other areas of athletic performance. U.S. Patent No. 8585555, titled Interactive Athletic Equipment System, protects an apparatus designed to detect the athletic activity of an individual user. This device can track personal milestones, best performances and provide other meaningful data to a user. The patent, assigned to Nike, Inc., in November 2013, can utilize shoe-based sensors among other types of sensors for obtaining personal data. Finally, we were piqued by the new technology discussed in U.S. Patent No. 8460001, issued under the title Athletic Performance Monitoring with Overstride Detection. This patent, issued to solo inventor Thomas Chuang of San Francisco, CA, in June 2013, protects a system of foot sensors used for athletic training applications. This technology is designed to detect overstriding in runners, which slows the runner’s pace, by monitoring the biomechanics of their stride.